The U.N. at 50
The vast majority of Americans know little and care little about the United Nations. Isn't it strange that the biggest and most powerful country in recent world history has a population that is profoundly ignorant of world affairs? Whose interests are served by this ignorance? The United Nations--like other global institu tions-- would better serve the public if it were more democratic. In order for real democracy to flourish, public access to information is essential. If this is true at the national level, it is even more important at the global level where the scope and complexity of institutions make openness vital if citizens are to play an active role. In that spirit, it is important for us to use the 50th anniversary of the U.N. to look at the structural flaws in the current world order that prevent the U.N. from realizing its original dream of a democratic world body that could foster peace and prosperity. Given that World War II was not yet concluded when the framers of the U.N. Charter gathered in San Francisco in the spring of 1945, it is no surprise that the very first sentence of the U.N. Charter, Chapter I, Article I, states that the organization's objective is "to maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the pre vention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppres sion of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace." The original framers of the U.N. Charter viewed the eventual U.N. peacekeeping force as a serious, permanent body (numbering some 2 million people) capable of carrying out that mandate. Needless to say, this international standing army has not come about. The fact is that the U.N. has not kept the peace. Between 1945 and 1990 more than 23 million people died in armed conflicts worldwide. In many of these cases the U.N. failed to act because of the cold war standoff between the United States and the USSR. During that same time there were 279 Security Council vetoes that prevented the U.N. from acting to enforce international security. Considering that the key goals of the U.N. have been to avoid war and to protect weak states against aggression, the U.N.'s perfor mance must be judged a failure. The Soviet invasion and occupa tion of Afghanistan--and subsequent CIA intervention--helped reduce Afghanistan to rubble. The U.S. invasion of Panama in 1990 killed thousands of people, all for the sake of arresting Manuel Noriega, a former CIA em ployee. During the 1980s the white minority government of South Africa systematically attacked nine neighboring countries, caus ing thousands of deaths and more than $60 billion in property damage; yet the U.N. was prevented from stopping South Africa's aggression because the Reagan and Bush administrations vetoed Security Council action against the apartheid state On the rare occasion when a U.N. agency has ruled against the United States--as the International Court of Justice did in condemning U.S. mining of Nicaraguan harbors in the 1980s--Wash ington has openly ignored the ruling. When the U.N. General Assembly voted 102 to 2 in 1994 to condemn Washington's unilat eral blockade of Cuba, Washington stiffened the embargo rather than respond to world opinion. The main reason the U.N. has not been able to fulfill its peacekeeping role is that U.S. governments--both Democrat and Republican--have refused to allow the establishment of a multi lateral military force that could in any way rival the Pentagon. In May 1994 the Clinton administration issued Presidential Deci sion Directive 25 on "reforming multilateral peace operations." The bottom line of the U.S. policy statement is to reaffirm the longstanding U.S. opposition to a U.N. army as originally envi sioned at the founding conference in San Francisco. Although Clinton supported the idea as a candidate, the president's direc tive says: "The U.S. does not support a standing U.N. army, nor will we earmark specific U.S. military units for participation in U.N. operations." This policy also explains why consecutive U.S. governments have paid as much as one-third of the cost of U.N. peacekeeping operations--to give Washington more leverage over peacekeeping operations than if they were funded from other sources. One of the most knowledgeable U.N. observers, Professor Rich ard Falk of Princeton University, concludes that in peace and security issues the U.N. "essentially embodies the geopolitical priorities of the permanent members of the Security Council, and especially those of the United States." And with conservatives in control of Congress, no U.S. president is likely to support plans that would give the U.N. more independence from U.S. control. To have and have not Most people don't know that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are "specialized agencies" of the U.N. and should not be in charge of macroeconomic policy. Article 58 of the U.N. Charter says the General Assembly should coordi nate macroeconomic policies, and Article 63 says that ECOSOC (the U.N. Economic and Social Council) should oversee the implementa tion of these policies by the specialized agencies. Yet ECOSOC does not oversee either the IMF or the World Bank. But powerful banking interests in the major industrial countries, especially the United States, have ensured that these institutions have developed autonomy from the U.N. and an amazing degree of control over the economic policies of many third-world countries. By safeguarding the operations of multinational corpo rations, the "structural adjustment" policies imposed by the World Bank and the IMF have caused a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. The U.N. Development Programme estimates that the "unequal partnership" between the northern- and southern-hemisphere na tions in trade and finance results in a loss for the third world of some $500 billion every year--10 times as much as all the official aid to the south from the north. How can we talk of global citizenship when the richest 20 percent of the world's population--in northern industrial coun tries--accounts for 83 percent of global gross national product, 81 percent of world trade, 95 percent of all commercial lending, 81 percent of all domestic savings and investment, and 94 percent of all research and development money? The richest 20 percent of the world's population receives 83 percent of the world's income, while the poorest 60 percent receives just 5.6 percent. This inequality also sheds new light on talk about overpopulation, especially in the third world. The population problem is not caused by poor people having too many children: it's caused by a wealthy minority using (and abusing) a dispro portionate share of the earth's resources. The richest 20 percent of the world's population uses 70 percent of the world's energy, 75 percent of the world's metals, 85 percent of the world's wood, and 60 percent of the world's food--and produces about 75 percent of the world's environmental pollution. Widening the gap Apologists for the current world order assert that if we can just get economic growth rates high enough, these problems would be solved. But data shows that during a period of significant growth in world trade (1960 to 1990) global inequality got significantly worse: the ratio of incomes between the richest 20 percent and poorest 20 percent of the world population during that period doubled from 30 to 1 to 60 to 1. This inequality is not just a debating point: it results in untold suffering. More than six million children die each year from poverty-related causes such as malnutrition--that's one child dying needlessly every five seconds. This means that the World Bank and IMF have failed the key economic test in a world dominated by market forces, namely, helping the majority to be able to survive, let alone compete. And the political implication of worsening inequality is that the wealthy minority who control the major institutions are better able to insulate themselves from democratic control by the major ity. That being said, the U.N. has made many great social achievements. UNESCO has helped countries launch literacy cam paigns and expand education; the World Health Organization helped mobilize global action to wipe out smallpox; specialized agencies such as the International Telecommunication Union, the World Meteorological Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and the Universal Postal Union have helped regulate important aspects of international cooperation and have provided technical assis tance to poor countries. Yet these achievements pale in comparison to the growing inequality and poverty that is systematically reinforced by the policies of the World Bank, the IMF, transnational corporations, and of course, Washington. Approaches to change There are two basic approaches to change in the world. One seeks to reduce democratic participation of the majority and concentrate power in secretive organizations such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization; the other seeks more grassroots control by community organizations and groups that are accountable to average people. The U.N. is a somewhat contradictory organization in that it is both a product of, and an arena for, the struggle between these two approaches and its policies often reflect this struggle between democratic and anti-democratic forces. Institutions like the U.N. can be improved by making them more open to public scrutiny and giving the public more control over powerful institutions such as transnational corporations. But it requires that people be informed and become active; elites will not make the necessary changes in a system that suits them. Here are some suggestions on how the U.N. could make steps toward further democratization: * Establish elections in each country to choose national representatives to the U.N. * Expand the Security Council to make it more representative and end the veto rights of the permanent members. * Establish a more permanent U.N. military force for rapid de ployment in peacekeeping operations. * Establish a humanitarian police force to protect relief opera tions. * Create a U.N. High Commission of Human Rights with powers to expose human rights violations (both political and economic) and recommend action. * Revitalize the U.N. Centre on Transnational Corporations and allow it to develop an international code of conduct for transna tional corporations. * Open the books of secretive agencies such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization to public accountability. * Support nongovernmental organizations that are building grass roots links across borders as an alternative to government-dominated institutions such as the U.N. These and other needed changes will only be possible if we drop our cynicism and get more people involved in organizations work ing on global reform.